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Northrop calls for quicker JSTARS schedule as “E-8D” takes shape

Northrop Grumman says it shouldn’t take 16 years for the US Air Force’s to recapitalise the Boeing 707-based E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, and it doesn’t need an 11-month “risk-reduction” phase to get started.

The air force recently awarded $10 million contracts to Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed Martin to mature their competing next-generation JSTARS designs, but Northrop believes it already has an “85% solution” and is ready to proceed to development. If fact, the product is known internally as the "E-8D" since it uses mature technology and is considered more of an evolutionary capability advancement.

Northrop vice president and “JSTARS recap” programme lead Alan Metzger says the company is itching to go faster, and the limiting factor is funding and how fast the air force can go.

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Northrop's GV JSTARS testbed aircraft flies into Melbourne, Florida.

Northrop Grumman

The company is partnered with Gulfstream and L-3 Aerospace Systems for the programme, and intends to offer a G550 or G650 platform with a Raytheon or Northrop Electronic Systems radar.

The current air force schedule would award a four-year development contract with initial operational capability (IOC) in 2024 and full operational capability (FOC) with 17 combat-ready jets in 2027.

The risk-reduction phase runs through July 2016, at which point the teams would write their proposals and hand them over to the government for a source-selection decision by August 2017.

“If you take the [analysis of alternatives] in in 2011 and the FOC date of 2027 – 16 years in an awful long time, and at the end of the day we feel we could go a lot faster,” Metzger said at JSTARS media event at Gulfstream’s headquarters in Savannah, Georgia this week.

“If you want speed to ramp, you pull this stuff left and go quicker. It should not take 16 years to buy some commercial aircraft, build some [mission system] kits, do some flight tests and deliver.

“We have a strategy to basically give the air force a very affordable and rapid solution space that gives them the required growth and ability to add things over time in advance of their current plan. How we do that is our uniqueness at this point of time.”

Northrop is the first industry participant publically call for a compressed time line. The company says the programme should get underway as soon as possible to avoid aligning with the ramp up in production of the Lockheed Martin F-35, Boeing KC-46 and Long-Range Strike Bomber in the mid-2020s, since there will be scarcely enough money to afford those.

“They all seem to be happening in the 2022 to 2028 kind of time frame, and that creates what the air force called a [fiscal] bow wave,” says Metzger.

However, it’s also true that an extended time line would give rivals Lockheed and Boeing more time to catch up, and the air force insists on a competitive programme. Northrop has a natural advantage, since it is the original JSTARS manufacturer.

When the air force was first considering how to replace JSTARS, Northrop said it could deliver a next-generation weapon system using mature, existing technology on a business jet with IOC in 2021 and FOC in 2023. When the air force released its first draft schedule in 2014, the dates placed IOC in 2022 and FOC in 2025, but the latest air force budget proposal delayed those two dates.

Northrop still thinks it can achieve its original goal, but that depends on when the air force awards the engineering and manufacturing development contract. Northrop wants to start writing proposals now.

“My team does not believe it needs an 11-month risk-reduction period,” Metzger says. “We believe we could go to proposal right now.”

The delay appears to be one factor behind the air force’s decision to delay retiring five E-8C aircraft in 2016, as proposed in 2014. Instead, the service will retire the fleet between 2019 and 2023 – a time frame that still exceeds the planned delivery schedule for the replacement aircraft.

Northrop thinks is can deliver four IOC aircraft from 2020 to 2021 and the remaining quantity by 2022-2023, if things align its way.

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An artist's impression of the Northrop G550-based JSTARS system, known internally as "E-8D".

Gulfstream

In another twist to the ever-newsy JSTARS competition, the air force on 21 August released a request for proposals seeking information from domestic radar providers about the readiness of their offerings. The plan is to start integrating the radar two years into the development contract.

“Ongoing analysis of information from JSTARS Recap market research indicates there are potential risks related to the delivery of the first radar test article to support weapon system integration for the JSTARS Recap effort,” the service says in the notice.

Raytheon and Northrop are the primary radar providers and are not exclusively teamed, but the notice indicates some difficulty bringing their two offerings up the needed level of maturity.

Northrop has kept quiet about its radar offering so far, whereas Raytheon’s “Skynet” radar appears to be quite popular among the primes.

Northrop originally wanted to exclusively team with Raytheon, but was turned down. Instead, “Skynet” – a derivative of a mature Navy wide-area surveillance radar – is being made available to all sides.

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